Twenty five years ago you would be lucky to find basmati rice at a Canadian/American grocery store, so South Asian markets and shops were vital to the community. They were the weekly go-to spot for spices, vegetables, flours, grains and meat. Unfortunately, today with large retailers trying to win over the ethnic market, these small mom-and-pop shops are downsizing and even going out of business due to their super-sized competition. However, no matter what the big guys do, there are some things they can’t duplicate.
Here are five reasons why I love my local South Asian grocery store:
Big box retailers are mainly in commercial areas, so for some, it can be quite a distance from home. Worse is parking – if you have to shop during peak hours, you’re tired from walking before you even reach the entrance. Most South Asian stores are located in a plaza so parking is really close. I find that their busy times are always really random so I’m usually able to be in and out fairly quickly. Plus, for more time-consuming items like meat and fish, I call ahead to pre-order and they’re always happy to accommodate.
What’s the best brand of mix for raas malai? What is this vegetable called? How do I peel and cut this bhindi? Whatever the question, you’ll find someone who can answer whether it’s the owner, cashier or your friendly neighbourhood Aunty. I also love when I place my items for checkout at the register and the store owner (who in most cases is the cashier) says “no, put that one back.” No explanation. If I really need it, he’ll find me a more suitable substitute. No means no!
I love seeing what wacky signage I can find each time I visit. Spelling and grammatical errors plus ripped cardboard signs are all a part of the “low-budget” charm.
Sure, large grocery retailers are jumping on the ethnic food wagon faster than your mom at a Tupperware sale, but with the many different ethnicities, it’s hard to stock everything for everyone. A South Asian grocery store is more specialized (and store owners are experts in their fields!) so they’ll focus on a specific country/region, like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc.
1. They’re open 365 days a year (or 366 if it’s a leap year) Need a loaf of bread, milk or onions on Christmas Day? Don’t fret – your local south Asian store will more than likely be open. They might be on shortened or holiday hours so it’s best to go late morning or early afternoon. But call ahead to make sure they’re operating that day before visiting.
Not all stores are great; you’ll have your hits and misses for sure. Visit a few places in your area and choose the one that works for you. Are they willing to accommodate special requests? Are they helpful? Do they take phone orders? These are all things that I find important that a large retailer can’t possibly offer. Most importantly, support these local small businesses because they depend on us as the new generation of shoppers.
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